The last things my parents read

As I slowly make progress-that-doesn’t-feel-like-progress in selling my parents’ house, one of my tasks last weekend was to take copious photos of my father’s book store inventory, which, for complicated legal reasons, we are required to at least make an effort to sell. When he was alive, it was so impressive that he kept the entire catalogue — thousands upon thousands of books — entirely in his head, and could instantly go and pluck them off the shelf when someone ordered one. This is less impressive now that he is dead, and a book dealer wants to know if there is a catalogue of titles anywhere. Well, yes and no. Well, no.

Anyway, my parents did leave behind not only all the books my dad was selling, but all the books they just had, which was a lot. “How I love them! How I need them! I only wish that I could eat them!” my father used to say. 

Feeling like a mega-creep, I stretched myself across my parents’ bed and fished out all the books that had fallen down on either side, and gathered them up, and stacked them along with the books stacked on their bedside tables. These are not for sale. I just wanted to know what were the last things they read before they died. My mother was on the left, by the window. My father was on the right, by the door. His glasses were still sitting on the little table. 

My mother, of course, had stopped reading several years previously, as Alzheimer’s took more and more of her cognitive ability. But when she had that ability, dang. Here are her bedside books:

The Catholic Living Bible; In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat by John Gribbin; a Holt Physics textbook, Gúenonian Esoterism & Christian Mytery by Jean Borella, The Iliad, The Aneid, The Genesis Flood by John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris, an Olive Sacks anthology, and The Story of Quantum Mechanics by Victor Guillemin. Also: 

Genesis: The Story We Haven’t Heard by Paul Borgman; Three Histories by Herodotus; The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor; and The New Testament translated by Ronald Knox, who, she was always ready to explain, did all his translations at the kitchen table while people were running around making noise; and All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren.

More books:

The Quantum Enigma by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner; The Best of the Best by Judith Merril (a science fiction anthology. My mother read TONS of science fiction); Introduction to the Philosophy of Being by George Peter Klubertanz; The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning by me (she was very proud); The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman; and two copies of Billy Budd by Herman Melville, for some reason. And something large and red and very dusty. The last book on the right is Classic Fairy Tales. 

My father lived at that house for several years after my mother moved into the nursing home, and some of those books on her side are definitely his. I think he must have strayed onto her side of the bed after she was moved out, and read some of her books, and left some of his. It makes sense that my dad had The Odyssey (the Fagles translation, which he requested I bring to the hospital after his final heart surgery. Very good for your heart, Fagles), but I don’t really see my mother reading the Iliad, or Melville, or Virgil for pleasure. I could be wrong. Definitely no Robert Penn Warren. That’s a very good book, but also right on the verge of bullshit, and my mother could not tolerate bullshit. Science fiction, yes. Fairy tales, definitely. She didn’t consume fiction in a neurotypical way. She was always recommending books that were good, just not well-written, and she couldn’t understand why that was such a barrier to everybody.

Anyway, here are my father’s books.

The Tablernacle of Moses by Kevin Connor; an issue of The Human Life Review; Freddy and the Ignormus by Walter R. Brooks; All Aunt Hagar’s Children by Edward P. Jones; The Death of Evolution by Wallace Johnson; Freddy the Detective by Walter R. Brooks; Introduction to the Metaphysics of Aquinas; Freddy Goes to Florida; Moby-Dick; The Possessed by Dostoevsky; The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman; Homeric Moments by Eva Brann; an Omnibus of Science Fiction ed. by Conklin;

1781: The Grand Convention by Clinton Rossiter; Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy (this was definitely both my parents. They actually travelled to Lost Cove, Tennessee); Theistic Evolution by Wolfgang Smith (with whom my mother carried on some kind of passionate intellectual exchange by mail for years until he abruptly got offended about something and cut off contact, wounding her horribly); The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins; Christian Gnosis by Wolfgang Smith; and an RSV Bible; and finally

Science & Myth by Wolfgang Smith; Dante’s Inferno translated by Anthony Esolen; Another Fagles Odyssey; another copy of Science & Myth, the Knox translation of the Bible; and something else, not sure what. It’s too thin to be more Freddy the Pig.

I don’t know why I’m writing all this down, what for. So there will be a memory. So there will be a record. You can see, anyway, that they were both very interested in how the world came to be, and why. I imagine they’re still gathering information on that. 

My father used to say that, after so many decades of marriage, he could almost always predict what my mother was going to do, but he still had no idea why. She was a strange person, and I think only a few people knew her well. Not me. I did find, when prowling about the house, a scrap of paper in my mother’s handwriting. It was a moderately cute kid story, wherein Simmy (that’s me) asked for one of those fuzzy rabbits for a birthday present, and then promised to try to forget it, so it would be a surprise. My mother thought that was worth writing down to remember, and it survived for forty years or more, and now we’re cleaning everything out, deciding what to save and what to let go. 

She was always trying to get me to print out my entire website, all my archives, thousands and thousands of pages, just in case, so it wouldn’t be lost.  There are so many things she took the trouble to write down, and now look. Just all floating around in a dusty house, waiting for the auction. I have decided to hire someone to clean out the rest of the house. There are a lot of things in there I would just as soon forget, and never be surprised by again. And maybe I will read some Freddy the Pig. Poor stupid daughter of my crazy, brilliant parents. It’s hard to know what to save and what to let go. 

 

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8 thoughts on “The last things my parents read”

  1. Simcha,
    I’m so sorry for the suffering you are experiencing in the loss of your parents and all that comes with that.

    I’d like to pass along to you a few things my mother has told us in our hard times:
    – “This, too, shall pass!”
    – “‘Great is Thy steadfast love, O Lord.'”

    You are in my thoughts and prayers. ✝️💘 (Sacred Heart of Jesus)

  2. I’m in the process of doing something similar. My aunt just passed away, and my father is on hospice. He was never able to let go of anything. My aunt has books, but looking through them has not given me the same connection to her that you describe here and that makes me sad. The aged books and tattered paperbacks – those are the best because clearly they are personal and beloved by your parents.

  3. Thank you for the snapshot into your parents’ souls—and yours. So much to be gleaned about two people by their bedside books. I am reshuffling mine today.

  4. I’ve read about your parents before, but now I really get how quirky, brilliant, and grounded they were! Freddy leavens the whole batch!

    1. Also very good idea about getting cleaning help – my chest was tightening just reading about it. What an undertaking.

  5. After 18 and 19 years since their deaths, I have sorted and dispersed the bulk of my parents’ possessions, and I sympathize with your efforts. You have done them honor and I feel a kinship with them both through your writing. May you know the lightness of being that grows in the letting go. God bless you in the process.

  6. Clearing out my parents’ possessions was the most exhausting and emotionally fraught thing I’ve ever one. I wish you strength and peace and I think that hiring someone to help is a very good idea.

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